7 places to visit near Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria's Mediterranean Southeast

7 places to visit near Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria’s Mediterranean Southeast

Situated where the meandering Arda River carves through the last spurs of the Eastern Rhodopes, the Ivaylovgrad region boasts a mild southern climate, a Mediterranean natural environment and a remarkable variety of cultural attractions.

Though Ivaylovgrad is by all means off the beaten track, its direct proximity to Greece and Turkey and the new Maritsa highway makes it quite accessible. And with its quaint adobe villages, Byzantine castles and stunning Roman mosaics, the region is absolutely worth exploring!

From the best place to observe rare birds of prey to a church built in seven days, kashkaval tourist presents 7 places to visit near Ivaylovgrad in Bulgaria’s Mediterranean Southeast.

1. Silk farming and Albanian hospitality: Mandritsa

Silk farming and Albanian hospitality: Mandritsa

Silk farming and Albanian hospitality: Mandritsa

Mandritsa might be a tranquil village just west of the Greek border, but it impresses with its unique Albanian history and rarely-seen adobe architecture. Founded in the 17th century by three Albanian brothers, nowadays Mandritsa (Мандрица) is famous as the only Albanian village in Bulgaria – indeed, some of the locals have still preserved their peculiar Tosk Albanian dialect.

While only a handful of imposing three-storey houses remind of the village’s former prosperity as a silk farming centre, the cozy little hotel Bukor Shtepi attracts visitors to this serene location once again. What’s more, the hotel’s restaurant serves truly sensational interpretations of Albanian and Mediterranean cuisine which go perfectly with the homemade rakia!

2. Vultures above the meanders of the Arda: Madzharovo

Vultures above the meanders of the Arda: Madzharovo

Vultures above the meanders of the Arda: Madzharovo

A former mining town separated from Ivaylovgrad by the picturesque Ivaylovgrad Reservoir, Madzharovo has reimagined itself as the top place to see vultures in Bulgaria. Situated among the sharp rocks of an ancient volcanic crater, the bends of the Arda River near Madzharovo (Маджарово) host three vulture species and many other rare birds of prey.

The Eastern Rhodopes vulture conservation centre in town provides insights into the local flora and fauna as well as guided tours and rental kayaks. And if you’re thinking of spending the night under the stars, the camping site by the river is just about the perfect location to pitch a tent and prepare a bonfire!

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7 things to do in the regal Vidin in the Bulgarian Northwest

Tucked away in the top left corner of the map of Bulgaria, Vidin is the country’s northwestern-most town. Situated on a bend of the majestic Danube River opposite Romania and not far from Serbia, Vidin, “The Danube’s Eternal Guardian”, lies at the centre of a Balkan region that is often undeservedly underestimated by travellers.

With its long history as a stronghold of the Bulgarian Northwest, its impressive vistas of Central Europe’s longest river and its eclectic architectural and cultural heritage, Vidin is a wonderful destination off the beaten path. From entering Bulgaria’s best-preserved medieval castle to exploring the imposing ruins of the former synagogue, kashkaval tourist presents 7 things to do in the regal Vidin in the Bulgarian Northwest

1. Have a medieval experience in Bulgaria’s truest castle: Baba Vida

Have a medieval experience in Bulgaria’s truest castle: Baba Vida

Have a medieval experience in Bulgaria’s truest castle: Baba Vida

Standing proudly by the southern bank of the Danube, the impressive Baba Vida castle is perhaps Vidin’s best claim to fame. Baba Vida was constructed in the 10th century, establishing Vidin as the key fortress of this often rebellious and separatist northwestern region of the Bulgarian Empire. Though it was briefly conquered by the Hungarians and the Austrians, it was the Ottomans that last used the castle as a fortification up until the late 18th century.

Remarkably, Baba Vida has been preserved in its entirety, including a moat, two curtain walls and numerous defensive towers for you to see and tour. Cross the draw bridge into the main courtyard, see the medieval prison and torture chambers and then climb up the tunnel to the higher level complete with Ottoman-era cannons… and mesmerizing river views!

2. Pay your respects to the Northwest’s biggest church: the Cathedral of St Demetrius

Pay your respects to the Northwest’s biggest church: the Cathedral of St Demetrius

Pay your respects to the Northwest’s biggest church: the Cathedral of St Demetrius

The construction of Vidin’s cathedral church commenced in 1885, and with its elaborate architecture it remains one of the biggest and most beautiful Bulgarian Orthodox cathedrals. Designed by Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian architects and Italian engineers, the Cathedral of St Demetrius mixes Orthodox and Western influences. And its turret clock, built by the Munich clockmaker Johann Mannhardt, has been working without a fault since 1900!

Inside the church, you can see some impressive (and rather unusual) Art Nouveau frescoes from the 1920s. On one of the walls, the artist painted 19th-century Bulgarian National Revival heroes like Vasil Levski, Hristo Botev and Georgi Rakovski… in medieval attire! And what’s more, they’re all depicted as being blessed by Bulgaria’s national saint, John of Rila, who lived in the 10th century. For the interior of a religious site, the painting is truly bizarre and quite unorthodox indeed!

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8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus

Nested south of the magnificent Caucasus – Europe’s highest mountain chain – and on the opposite shore of the Black Sea from Bulgaria, Georgia is by all means one of the most beautiful countries in the world. Whether it’s fertile valleys, antique towns, secluded monasteries, coastal jungles, arid semi-desert plains or mind-boggling glaciated mountain peaks, Georgia has it all!

Sure, Georgia may not be a Balkan country, but I instantly felt at home in this Caucasian heaven during my two-week vacation. The warmth of the people, the dynamic landscapes, the secluded monasteries and the wonderful cuisine are but a few features Georgia and Bulgaria have in common. And there was no lack of excellent wine and rakia (or chacha, as they call it beyond the Black Sea) to keep me happy during my holiday!

From the region’s most romantic capital to the highest villages in Europe, kashkaval tourist presents 8 unforgettable places in Georgia, the pearl of the Caucasus!

1. Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Crossroads of Eurasian past and future: Tbilisi

Tbilisi, the romantic Georgian capital, is an excellent introduction to the culture, history, cuisine and nature of this incredible country and indeed, to the entire region. Tbilisi mixes East with West, tradition with modernity and old-town serenity with the hustle and bustle of a capital metropolis… and it does it all remarkably well!

Tbilisi’s Old Town with is quaint alleys and antique architecture will be your best bet for a leisurely walk or a casual Georgian wine dinner. Further away, the Dry Bridge flea market is a great place to buy antique souvenirs, especially if you’re curious about communist memorabilia.

Above the Old Town, the ancient Narikala Fortress on top of a steep hill will reveal vistas of the winding Mtkvari River and the ultramodern Peace Bridge crossing it – as well as the huge Holy Trinity Cathedral in traditional Caucasian style. If you’d rather spare the short but vertical walk to the fortress, you can always take the chairlift from the other side of the Peace Bridge. You’ll be rewarded with a short but exhilarating ride above the entire city!

2. Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Iconic hiking destination: Kazbek

Drive just a few hours north of Tbilisi along the legendary Georgian Military Road and you’ll end up in the heartland of the Central Caucasus, surrounded by peaks more than 4,000 metres high. Above the quaint medieval church of Tsminda Sameba and even further above the mountain town of Stepantsminda you’ll find the 5,047-metre-high Mount Kazbek, the mythical stratovolcano that Prometheus was allegedly chained on.

With its grassy slopes, dramatic glaciers and unmistakable volcanic shape, Mount Kazbek is one of Georgia’s prime hiking destinations. A steep two-hour walk will take you to the Tsminda Sameba Church above the village, which is perhaps the country’s most photographed location.

Add another four hours and you’ll end up at the foot of the massive Gergeti Glacier. And if you’re into some relatively light ice hiking, then you can overnight at the former weather station on the other side of the glacier, a further two hours away. Conditions at the hut are basic to say the least, but at 3,670 metres above sea level, you’ll take anything!

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7 exciting things to do in Dobruja

7 exciting things to do in Dobrudzha

A fertile agricultural region of hilly plains shared between Bulgaria and Romania, Dobrudzha has usually been overlooked as a tourist destination. And though it may lie somewhat off the beaten path in the northeastern corner of the Balkans, between the Lower Danube and the Black Sea, Dobrudzha (also spelled Dobruja, Dobrudja or Dobrogea) definitely has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment and tourism opportunities.

From spotting huge aquatic birds in the Danube Delta to visiting the glorious Black Sea beaches and extravagant summer palaces of “Bulgaria’s Granary”, kashkaval tourist presents 7 exciting things to do in Dobrudzha!

1. Pelican paradise: bird watching in the Danube Delta or Lake Srebarna

Pelican paradise: bird watching in the Danube Delta or Lake Srebarna

Pelican paradise: bird watching in the Danube Delta or Lake Srebarna. Photo credit: Luke1ace, Wikipedia.

With its wetlands bustling with life, the Lower Danube is one of Europe’s top birding locations. And it can’t get better than the Danube Delta in Romania, the continent’s second largest delta inhabited by over 320 species of birds. Take a memorable boat tour towards the Black Sea on one of the delta’s branches and become one with nature!

A UNESCO World Heritage Site just like the Danube Delta, Lake Srebarna in the Bulgarian part of Dobrudzha hosts 180 bird species in a very compact area. At Srebarna, arm yourself with binoculars and observe the colony of giant white Dalmatian pelicans from the observation point!

2. Rock it like a Roman: Trajan’s massive ancient monument in Adamclisi

Rock it like a Roman: Trajan’s massive ancient monument in Adamclisi

Rock it like a Roman: Trajan’s massive ancient monument in Adamclisi

1900 years ago, Roman Emperor Trajan and his legions marched in Dobrudzha to defeat the sturdy Dacians and conquer this fertile region for the empire. To commemorate this major victory, Trajan built a glorious monument at modern Adamclisi, Romania: the Tropaeum Traiani.

Trajan dedicated the memorial to the god Mars the Avenger and decorated it richly with 54 magnificent depictions of legions fighting Rome’s enemies. Reconstructed in 1977, the Tropaeum Traiani today rises 40 metres above the plains of Dobrudzha, reminding of the Roman conquest.

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7 magnificent spa resorts in Bulgaria

7 magnificent spa resorts in Bulgaria

With over 700 natural mineral and hot water springs, Bulgaria is a spa paradise famous over Europe ever since Ancient Roman times. In spring, the mountain regions where most spas are located are blossoming and blooming, with the mountain tops still covered by a shining blanket of snow. So what better time to discover one of the continent’s best spa destinations than spring and early summer?

From the site of one of Europe’s only real geysers to the sunniest town in the entire country, kashkaval tourist presents 7 magnificent spa resorts in Bulgaria!

1. Hot water geyser spot: Sapareva Banya

Hot water geyser spot: Sapareva Banya

Hot water geyser spot: Sapareva Banya

With one of continental Europe’s very few hot water geysers bang in the middle of Sapareva Banya (Сапарева баня), you just know the mineral springs in this sleepy mountain town are something to talk about. The hot waters spring forth at a temperature of 103°C and they have proven healthy properties.

The town lies at the foothills of the awe-inspiring Rila Mountains, the Balkans’ highest; in fact, it’s a starting point for the hike to the mesmerizing Seven Rila Lakes. Besides the geyser and a cute Byzantine-style medieval church, Sapareva Banya offers a variety of accommodation options and a modern spa centre.

2. Spa like an ancient Roman: Hisarya

Spa like an ancient Roman: Hisarya

Spa like an ancient Roman: Hisarya. Photo credit: Ramón, Flickr.

A modern destination spa town surrounded by unbelievable Ancient Roman ruins? If you want to combine leisure and history in your vacation, think no further than Hisarya (Хисаря)! Just 40 km north of the lovely Plovdiv in the gentle Sredna Gora Mountains, Hisarya was a major Roman metropolis under the name of Diocletianopolis. Several city gates and extensive fortifications still attest to this memorable period of Hisarya’s ancient history.

Hisarya was a spa tourism hub even in Roman times, and with its 16 natural mineral springs, this is hardly a surprise. Today, you can choose from cosy family-run guesthouses to four-star hotels with their own spa centres.

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7 authentic Bulgarian towns ideal for an autumn day trip

7 authentic Bulgarian towns ideal for an autumn day trip

Summer may be rapidly nearing its end and the weather in Bulgaria may not be warm enough to hit the beaches or ascend into the unpredictable mountains anymore. However, autumn still promises some pleasant and sunny days and there’s every reason to get excited about a romantic weekend getaway or a diverse day trip to one of the country’s numerous holiday destinations.

From Bulgaria’s only fully preserved medieval castle to the town of roses and Thracian kings, kashkaval tourist sets the mood with 7 authentic Bulgarian towns ideal for an autumn day trip!

1. A hero’s home town: Karlovo

A hero’s home town: Karlovo

A hero’s home town: Karlovo

Spectacularly positioned at the foot of the mighty Balkan Mountains, Karlovo (Карлово) is a small but lively town in south central Bulgaria. Its extensive and fascinating old quarter with its brightly painted Ottoman-style buildings will send you back two centuries. And the Vasil Levski National Museum will provide a historical insight into the events of the era by highlighting the biography of perhaps Bulgaria’s greatest and most tragic national hero, Karlovo-born Vasil Levski, the most eminent fighter for an independent Bulgarian state.

Fancy a short hike and a snippet of what’s there to see in the Central Balkan National Park towering above Karlovo? Then follow Vodopad Street – literally Waterfall Street – and at the end of the trail you’ll discover the surging 15-metre Suchurum Waterfall, one of many breathtaking waterfalls in Bulgaria.

2. Bulgaria in a nutshell: Kyustendil

Bulgaria in a nutshell: Kyustendil

Bulgaria in a nutshell: Kyustendil

With its remnants of Roman baths, a medieval fortress, an ancient church, an Ottoman mosque, a mysterious tower and a picturesque National Revival quarter, Kyustendil (Кюстендил) is like a microcosm of Bulgaria in itself. Situated in the mountainous southwestern corner of the country close to where the borders of Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia meet, Kyustendil is a perfect day trip destination.

In the town centre, check out the impressive Pirgova Tower from the 15th-16th century and enter the vibrant art gallery which features the largest collection of works by one of Bulgaria’s leading artists, Vladimir Dimitrov, titled The Master. A brief walk up to the Hisarlaka hill will reveal a huge medieval fortress – and unforgettable views of the town below.

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Ohrid, Macedonia

8 charming Balkan towns you should explore now

The Balkans are a fascinating and multi-faceted region that’s still relatively unexplored by tourists. Breathtaking mountains, thousands of kilometres of warm beaches, ancient monuments still standing, an ethnically and religiously diverse (and always welcoming) local environment – it really doesn’t get any more varied than that!

However, with a region as broad and as varied as Southeastern Europe, it can often be a challenge to choose where to go. Read on to learn about 8 charming Balkan towns where you can truly delve into the spirit of the Balkans – whether in better-known locations like Greece and Bulgaria or in still-undiscovered corners of the peninsula like southern Albania and Herzegovina!

1. Bridge over the ages: Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bridge over the ages – Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bridge over the ages – Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo credit: Jeremy Rover, Flickr.

The arched Old Bridge of white stone spanning the turquoise waters of the Neretva River is Mostar’s main symbol. It is present not only in the Herzegovinian town’s coat of arms but even in its name, alluding to the main occupation of the local residents as bridge keepers.

The Old Bridge, a work of legendary 16th-century architect Sinan, connects the cobblestone streets of Mostar’s old town on either side of the river, as well as the mix of Ottoman, Western and Mediterranean influences that shaped this charming place. Tragically, the original century-old bridge was destroyed during the Bosnian War, but its reconstruction now reminds of the fragility of tangible heritage.

2. A church for each day of the year: Ohrid, Macedonia

A church for each day of the year – Ohrid, Macedonia

A church for each day of the year – Ohrid, Macedonia

Ohrid is a delightful Macedonian town panoramically located on the shores of the crystal-clear Lake Ohrid. A religious and cultural centre since ancient times, it has been called “Jerusalem of the Balkans”, and not without reason. Reputedly, Ohrid once hosted 365 individual churches, one for each day of the year, and though far from all of these are around these days, those that remain make up for the numbers in their fabulous design and decoration.

Medieval churches, lavish merchant houses from Ottoman times and the mighty walls of Emperor Samuil’s fortress attract visitors to this heavenly town on the lakeside… but the innumerable wild beaches still remain Macedonia’s best-kept secret. And for some unforgettable hiking with lake vistas, you can always wander into the nearby mountain of Galičica, nested between Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa on the other side.

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